Flying gets Greener

2024 brings innovations in Waste-to-Jet-Fuel

As a major CO2 emissions contributor (2% globally), the aviation industry is desperate to find alternative ways to create kerosene, jet fuel, without utilising fossil fuels. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is essentially jet fuel that uses any non-petroleum-based renewable source for its feedstock; biomass, human/animal waste, agricultural by-products, all are SAF examples that can represent anywhere up to 80-90% lower carbon emissions rates compared to conventional jet fuel.

Post COP28, heavy emitters like aviation are eager to push harder for fundamental changes that will lead to a lighter carbon footprint. Given that the estimated global consumption of jet fuel by commercial companies was 86 billion gallons in 2023, the need to secure and upscale SAF production is greater than ever before. Innovations that lead to more reliable, cheaper and easier production methods may quickly become industry-changing events this year.

UK: Human waste to kerosene

UK-based company Green Fuels has collaborated with Imperial College, London, to create net-zero kerosene starting with human waste. This waste is treated to become “bio crude”, which behaves in a chemically similar way to regular crude oil. This is then further refined to become bio kerosene.

Having just been awarded a £2 million grant from the UK Government’s Department of Transport, the Green Fuels team is eager to scale up the product. They estimate that each human on Earth creates enough sewage to produce 4-5 litres of bio jet fuel annually. Accordingly, it would take the full annual waste of 10,000 people to create enough bio jet fuel to power a flight from London to New York. Utilising the total amount of human waste produced across the UK would only satisfy 5% of the country’s demand for aviation fuel.

While this supply-demand imbalance means that human waste could never replace regular jet fuel entirely, bio kerosene could play a vital role in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint while alleviating the waste management burden of the UK and potentially global customers of Green Fuels and similar providers.

This latest innovation comes hot on the heels of a major UK Government investment in kickstarting SAF production, which has led to a contract tendered for a £1.5bn waste-to-fuel plant. Saudi Arabian industrial conglomerate Alfanar will build the facility, which is scheduled to begin operations in 2028 and produce around 125,000 tonnes of aviation fuel per year from non-recyclable waste destined for landfill.

UAE: MSW to ethanol to sustainable aviation fuel

Closer to home, the UAE’s Tadweer (Abu Dhabi Waste Management Company) is currently undertaking a feasibility study for a new integrated waste-to-sustainable aviation fuel facility in partnership with US-based LanzaTech.

LanzaTech has developed bespoke bio recycling technology that captures carbon generated by energy-intensive industries at the source, siphoning it off before it enters the atmosphere so it can be used in everyday products. In this proposed facility, the two waste management innovators aim to achieve a processing rate of 350,000 tonnes of hard-to-recycle municipal and commercial solid waste (MSW), to be transformed into 200,000 tonnes of ethanol, followed by 120,000 tonnes of SAF annually.

This partnership and the introduction of novel bio recycling technologies highlights the increasingly demand for SAF and the willingness of private and public organisations to facilitate its accelerated production. 

France/Kuwait: Kuwait Petroleum International (KPI) successfully blends SAF 

KPI is responsible for supplying jet fuel to 70 major airports around the world, making it a key player in the development and upscaling of SAF as a cleaner alternative to conventional jet fuel. Last month saw KPI successfully conduct its first SAF blending process at a biorefinery in Le Havre, a northern port city in France. This is a pioneering moment in the company’s ongoing efforts to lead the sustainable development of aviation fuel processing that can help the industry achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Pending last checks by the European Union’s International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), KPI’s SAFE will be supplied to Charles de Gaulle Airport, the largest in France, and Orly Airport, the second-largest in Paris. 

SAF paves the way for faster waste-to-fuel innovation and production

Aviation is a perfect example of a highly visible, frequently criticised industry that fully recognises the benefits of decarbonising as aggressively as possible. SAF continues to gain media attention, public/private investment and market appeal as it can help tackle carbon emissions rates while at the same time creating avenues for better management of waste streams that are often expensive and environmentally damaging to deal with using traditional methods. 

Leaning into SAF is music to the ears of governments, regulators and private enterprises that all want to demonstrate that they are being proactive in embracing circular economics and the broader net-zero aims of individual countries and/or whole global industries. 2024 has seen a strong start for SAF development, and we’re only at the start of it.